Recycling is suffering from system failure; it’s time for a system redesign

We are sacrificing our oceans and filling our landfills in the name of convenience. It’s time to pay the bill.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “The U.S. recycling industry is breaking down.” Bob Tita writes:

Prices for scrap paper and plastic have collapsed, leading local officials across the country to charge residents more to collect recyclables and send some to landfills. Used newspapers, cardboard boxes and plastic bottles are piling up at plants that can’t make a profit processing them for export or domestic markets.

It all worked for a while as much of the recycling was shipped to China, where cheap labor made it possible to separate the pizza-covered boxes from the clean cardboard, but the government won’t let them do that anymore. So mixed paper that used to sell for $150 a ton now sells for $5. So instead, much of it is going to landfill.

Stuff is definitely getting thrown away in landfills. Nobody is happy about it,” said Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration for the Recycling Partnership in Virginia. “There are very few landfill owners that don’t operate recycling facilities, too. They’d much rather be paid for those materials.”

Essentially, we have a system failure. All of which brings us back to the argument about recycling: who is it for? Who benefits? What do we do now?

The first thing we do is start ignoring the word “recyclable”. If there is not a market for it, then it is not going to be recycled, it is probably going to end up in landfill.

Leyla Acaroglu, who we covered earlier in Design For Disposability, has now written System Failures: Planned Obsolescence and Enforced Disposability, where she looks at the mess and notes that “Our daily lives are now predominantly scripted and defined by single-use throwaway stuff. Think of how many of your normal daily interactions involve an enforced aspect of disposability.”

Many of the goods and services we all rely on are created with the specific intent to lose value over time so that the consumer is stuck in an enforced consumption service cycle, which increases value for the producer, but not for the customer nor the planet. And the cost of dealing with all of this reduced value stuff is placed on the customer and local governments in the form of funding local waste management services.

© Leyla Acaroglu

She then describes how making something “recyclable”, what I called feel-good phoney environmentalism, in fact has validated the production of single use product streams. It shifts the burden of responsibility to the consumer (who in the depressing case of Keuring, has to dismantle the coffee pods) and the local governments that have to pay to have the stuff taken away.

I have noted before that everything from the TV dinner to the aluminum beer can were invented not to meet a perceived need but to actually eat up the supply of aluminum that wasn’t needed for the war effort anymore. Convenience, in the form of disposable aluminum or plastic containers, became the product.

Disposability is an absurd business model that was originally encouraged as a way of increasing consumption for the benefit of the entire economy, but it is now used as a manipulative tactic to keep consumers locked into enforced consumption cycles where you have to pay for upgrades, buy the newest version, or accept the limited use option.

Everything comes down to design, and Acaroglu calls waste “a human created design flaw.” She concludes that we have to shift to a post disposable society, “one where we reinstate the value in consumer goods and find closed-loop production and delivery services that design out disposability.”

Acaroglu carries her own water bottle and refuses to go to the kind of places that throw disposables at you. She says people look at her funny. We all have to start doing this and making it the societal norm, so that the people who get the funny looks are the ones that take the disposables. “We all have the power to demand post disposable products and help transition to a future that is not plagued by single-use products and cheap disposable crap.”

In fact, the failure of our recycling system is a real opportunity. Years ago the plastic and glass industries convinced governments that recycling was a better approach than deposits on everything; now we know they were deceiving us.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Instead, we need everything that is sold to have a deposit on it that is big enough to incentivize the customer to bring back their paper cup to the store, making it a producer responsibility. Or the deposit might be big enough so that when something ends up in the garbage or recycle bin, it covers the cost of its proper disposal. I suspect that if Keurig customers had to pay a deposit covering the full cost of somebody separating, recycling and composting a pod, it would cost almost as much as it did to make the pod in the first place.

We know that recycling is broken, and that it was never anything but a justification for making more disposable stuff and making us feel better about buying disposables and throwing stuff out. It never was a green virtue, it was mostly a scam. It’s time to change the system. Or as Leyla Acaroglu concludes:

Everything is interconnected on this planet. Our collective choices have impacts, and our disposable economy needs to be shifted to a circular one.


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